Thursday, October 06, 2011

A Bill of Divorcement

I have a hard time talking about Katharine Hepburn movies without relating this story, so bear with me: I saw The Aviator with my brother Matt, and neither of us were really taken with it, though perhaps for different reasons (IIRC, I thought Scorcese was ill-equipped to understand the engineer part of Howard Hughes; he found the stylization annoying). This was part of the conversation we had on the way out:

Matt: ... and just what the heck was Cate Blanchett doing?

Jay: Have you ever seen a Katharine Hepburn movie?

Matt: No.

Jay: They're like that. All of 'em.

That's a bit of an exaggeration, but Hepburn is unmistakably a distinctive personality on-screen, and it was interesting to see just how fully-formed that was in A Bill of Divorcement, her first movie. According to the introduction, that's just the way she was, brash and extraordinarily sure of herself, even when auditioning for her first film role; fortunately, George Cukor really liked that. It's an acting style and personality that makes for easy caricature or dismissal until you've seen just how much she can do with it, and although I'm not making flippant comments about her any more, I hope to get a better appreciation of Kate as ArtsEmerson's "Kate the Icon, Katharine the Iconoclast" series continues.

The series is looking like a good one; it started last weekend with this and Little Women and will run weekends through the rest of the year, showcasing her movies in roughly chronological order. A Bill of Divorcement was a special treat, as it was an archive print of a movie not readily available on video (at least in Region 1/A), which is kind of surprising: Not only is it Hepburn's first (and, as such, her first collaboration with George Cukor), but also features John Barrymore and Billie Burke (whose return to film after a decade-long absense in which the industry changed focus from silent shorts to talking features is an interesting story in and of itself). I'm not sure who owns this part of the Selznick library (Universal?), but it seems like prime material for at least a Warner Archive-style release.

Anyway, what's interesting to me is that it's one of the few times Hepburn has really seemed young to me; the image of her in my mind is the middle-aged spinster of The African Queen, and even in her 1930s romantic comedies, she seems to have needed a little time to accumulate her eccentricities. This is her as an ingenue, at least to start, and she proves to be pretty good at it.

As an aside, trying to figure out ages and times for this temporarily drove me a little batty - if it was taking place in 1932, Sydney (Hepuburn) was supposed to be about 20 years old, and she had never known her father because he was institutionalized right after returning from "the war" as shell-shocked... Well, World War I works, but it's kind of tight - say she's conceived/born in 1914, and he returns in 1917 or 1918, then she's about 18 and Hilary (Barrymore) spent about 14-15 years in hospital. Apparently, though, the play was first performed in 1921, so "the war" was probably the Boer War (1899-1902), making her about 20-ish but suggesting he was in the asylum for 18+ years, which seems a bit high.

Not that it really matters, but considering that at one point Margaret (Burke) mentions she was about Sydney's age when she married and it wasn't long after before Hilary went off to war, she can't be much older than 44 or so, and even though that's not much younger than the actress was herself, she certainly scans as older to me. Maybe that's a sign of the times - people live longer now and work to remain youthful longer - but it was a bit of a distraction, at least for a nitpicker like me.

Anyway, Sylvia Scarlett this weekend, although it looks like I'll miss it. Check out ArtsEmerson's "On Screen" schedule here to see when future films will be playing.

A Bill of Divorcement

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 October 2011 in the Paramount Theater Bright Screening Room (Kate the Icon, Katharine the Iconoclast)

Few performers get top billing in their first picture, and Katharine Hepburn is no exception; she's listed fourth in the credits for A Bill of Divorcement, below at least one co-star who has a much smaller role. She'd be a leading lady soon enough, though, and it's no surprise, as she more than holds her own with a veteran cast, which helps a movie that is in many ways dated remain quite dramatic and watchable today.

The film opens at a party on Christmas Eve, circa 1930, a week before Margaret Fairfield (Billie Burke) and Gray Meredith (Paul Cavanagh) are set to marry, now that Margaret's divorce is finally complete. That's about the same time that Kit Humphreys (David Manners) is set to leave England for Canada, bringing Margaret's daughter Sydney (Hepburn) with him if she accepts his marriage proposal. Except that things change on Christmas morning, as Sydney's father Hilary (John Barrymore) shows up, having left the sanitarium where he has been since before Syndney can remember. He's shaky, but lucid enough to strongly object to to Margaret's divorce and remarriage - and what comes out as a result shakes Sydney to the core.

This film was released in 1932, and a modern audience will have to make some allowances even beyond Sydney's father being named Hilary rather than vice versa. Mostly, that comes from the depiction of mental illness; not only has "post-traumatic stress disorder" not yet replaced "shell shock", but saying "there's madness in our blood!" is probably only considered a little melodramatic. Hilary's exile - with neither Margaret nor Sydney having visited for at least fifteen years - is treated far more cavalierly than Margaret's decision to divorce. One probably won't look at and think his or her great-grandparents were horrible people, but things were a bit different then.

Full review at EFC.

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